Programs to enhance executives’ professional development can take many forms, including off-site programming, formal managerial coaching, and so-called developmental assignments, which involve “unexpected, high stakes, complex, high pressure, or novel challenges.” In practice, senior executives often find that they don’t have surplus time to commit to their own professional development. Not only that, but they’re stressed by higher workloads amidst budget cuts and may not receive support from their bosses to divert attention away from their day jobs. Training and development methods, too, vary across agencies and departments, a barrier to making sure all executives at the SES level are getting what they need.
There’s a “very strong indication that senior executives were too busy in many, many cases to take advantage of training opportunities available to them,” Dirks said, or “there were fewer opportunities available to them due to cuts in funding for training.”
The report suggests encouraging executives to write development plans—which they’re required to do, but which only half of career senior executives have actually done; supporting their time away from work for training; and “embedd[ing]” development programs into agencies’ normal operations, so that training will be less affected by funding, structure, and administration changes.
Dirks’s association, which advocates for senior executives, isn’t trying to run away from the problems documented in the report. He said he wasn’t surprised by its findings and thinks a culture change might be in order. But he emphasized that it’s not just funding for the training programs themselves that’s lacking. The executives themselves should be compensated better for the jobs they’re doing, he argued, both monetarily and through non-monetary awards.
Though the SEA’s bias toward better compensation is obvious, the Obama administration seems to agree. A year after announcing a push for SES reforms, President Obama signed an executive order that, among other provisions, raised the spending cap on bonuses for the best executives, to “retain and reward more top performers.” Dirks said a dwindling bonus pool has translated in recent years to “high-performers” leaving the SES and a “real erosion in [its] attractiveness.”
The Obama administration has also encouraged giving out non-monetary awards for good performance, something Dirks supports. He notes that, overall, the order “dovetail[s] fairly nicely” with the MSPB report’s findings, particularly when it comes to pushing for more emphasis on employee development. “That’s where I think the government is short-sighted in many cases,” he said. “They think that they can reap the rewards without investing in employees,” not only by failing to reward high-achievers, but also in supporting executives in the “tough decisions that they have to make every day.”